Paying too much attention to your emotional state can make you miserable
Ifyou want to feel slightly less happy right this minute, there’s an easy way to make that happen: Ask yourself how happy you’re feeling.
“The moment you check in — how happy am I now? — you feel happiness less,” says Iris Mauss, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. “The very question interferes with happiness.”
Mauss has spent years studying a phenomenon that some have termed the “happiness paradox.” The paradox is that when people try hard to be happy — when they make feeling happy a goal — their well-being tends to suffer for it.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Some appear to be cultural. Some have to do with the ways we define and pursue happiness.
But an overriding lesson from the happiness research is that the more you obsess about your emotional state — the more significance you assign your feelings, and the more you try to steer them — the more likely you are to get into emotional and psychological trouble.
Recently, Mauss and her research collaborators asked people to define happiness.
“We found a huge variety in how people answered,” she says. “Some people said happiness meant having good feelings, which is maybe the most intuitive response.” But when asked what good feelings they were talking about, some mentioned “excitement” or “joy” while others said “peacefulness.”
Some people didn’t talk about feelings at all. “They defined happiness in terms of knowledge — the knowledge that their life was meaningful, or the knowledge that they were a better person than they were five years ago,” she says. Others admitted their idea of happiness was acquiring more material possessions.
‘In the U.S., happiness is a relatively individualistic enterprise.’
The fact that we can’t even agree on what happiness is may partly explain why cultivating more of it is a challenge.
However, Mauss and her colleagues found that a person’s definition of happiness, whatever that definition was, tended to correlate with improved measures of well-being. Excitement and peacefulness and the knowledge that your life is meaningful — that’s all good stuff.
There was one big exception. “When people defined happiness in terms of material possessions, that was associated with worse well-being,” she says.
Mauss uncovered more useful insights while working on a 2015 study that appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. For that project, she and her colleagues examined how people in different cultures around the world think about and pursue happiness.
“We found that in the U.S., happiness is a relatively individualistic enterprise,” she says. The Americans in her study tended to focus on their personal emotional experiences and how best to ameliorate them. And once again, valuing happiness in this way was associated with lower well-being.
But in East Asia, where notions of happiness are more social and collectivist, rather than self-oriented, these patterns reversed. The more a person valued happiness, the greater their well-being.
There, Mauss and her group found that the pursuit of happiness looked different than it does in America. Happiness often involved helping others or spending more time with friends and family. People also tended to associate happiness with sentiments such as “seeing that other people are content” or “making the people I care about feel good.”
Another way to put it, in these East Asian cultures, happiness looked outward, not inward. And that seemed to make all the difference.
One of the unwelcome byproducts of prioritizing happiness — one that’s easy to overlook — is that you end up spending a lot of your time monitoring and judging your feelings.
How am I right now? Am I hopeful? Anxious? Ambivalent? Angry? Whatever answer you come up with, Mauss says that this sort of emotional self-scrutiny can have unhappy consequences.
If your emotions are pleasant, pausing to examine them can reduce their positivity by pulling you out of the moment. The experience of “flow” — of being wholly immersed in something — is a hallmark of many activities that people value or enjoy. Checking in on your emotional state disrupts that flow; it rips some of your attention away from the pleasurable experience.
Assessing your emotional state disrupts that flow; it rips some of your attention away from the pleasurable experience.
On the other hand, if your emotional check-in reveals that you’re not happy, you’re likely to see this as a problem to be remedied.